August 27, 2009

Pity the Bookmarkleteers: Bookmarklets and SEO

If you love to get links, you’ll love this: imagine having an online app users flock to, evangelize, and use on a daily—or even hourly—basis. Imagine that it solves a serious, growing problem, in a pleasant and unobtrusive way.

Now imagine getting a smidgen of a fraction of the attention (and link-love!) you’re due, and you’ll you what it’s like to be Arc90.

First, the problem: in the beginning, the Internet was boring. A couple seconds later, somebody realized they could make money from it. Money came from attention, attention came from eyeballs, and the quest for eyeballs led to monstrosities:

(NSFW language)

Hosted by imgur.com

That’s a problem. If this keeps up, within a decade we’ll be digging through a mountain of meaningless clutter to get at a half-nugget of decent data. And that’s assuming anyone bothers to come up with the actual data, too (have you noticed that some news sites are getting blander? Maybe now that they’ve maxed out the annoyance value of ads, they’re trying to make the ads seem relatively more interesting by making the text dull.)

Enter Readability

The solution (to the clutter problem, not the content problem—but more on that in a minute):

Readability, from Arc90. Use it for a day, and you’ll never use the web the same way again.

Readability turns the web from a newsstand to a used-book store. Sudenly, it’s all about the content. Seriously, try it out: Readability turns any page into a perfectly-formatted stream of straight text. You can customize the font size or the margins (making it a great tool for turning an essay into notes for a talk), and even change the font.

And Readability doesn’t just help you ignore ads; it also helps you tune out boring text. On a website with a hundred things happening at once, it’s easy to concentrate on boring, fluffy press releases. But if you’re scanning straight text without even a diagram to slow you down, it better be dense.

It’s a nicely packaged solution to a pressing need, it’s been endorsed by the dean of design-driven startups, and I’ve never heard of anyone getting rid of it.

So why doesn’t Arc90.com rank in the top ten for “usability” or “web design” or “text layout”?

Simple: their lovely application doesn’t really live in the link ecosystem: it’s hiding in browser bookmark bars, where Google can’t see it (or isn’t looking). This is how Readability can be part of the online lives of lots of very influential people, without that influence translating into search rankings.

What should change?

  1. Readability users should promote it on their sites. Every time they link to something ugly, they can throw in a link to Readability, which will make it beautiful. In fact, that could be done automatically with a WordPress plugin—the really boring part is coming up with a list of all the ill-formatted sites Readability could fix.

  2. Arc90 can promote readability in a variety of sneaky ways. For example, at the bottom of a document, why not throw in a link to an Arc90 blog devoted to announcing Readability updates, finding beautifully formatted online texts, and flaying alive anyone who makes the web worse for readers. The blog would instantly be one of the best-promoted in the universe—it would be the equivalent of getting every post to the front page of Delicious, Reddit, and Hacker News (and making sure it never saw the light of day on Digg). At that point, all they have to do is write content that’s worth reading in the eyes of an incredibly discriminating audience. Easy!

  3. Google can figure out how to account for the rise of the bookmarklet. There are a lot of programmers out there who can make something that fits into a bookmark bar, gets a click a day from a few thousand people, and makes everyone’s lives a little easier. And they ought to get some kind of reward for it!

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I’m currently the Co-Founder and CEO of a startup providing equity research and M&A due diligence to investors analyzing online businesses.